First Impression: I like the look of it, but I can’t help but wonder if Blizzard has perhaps drawn too heavily on elements of World of Warcraft in producing Diablo 3.

Note: This post is based upon my experiences with the Diablo 3 open beta.

The experience of playing Diablo 3 was like reconnecting with an old girlfriend. In an instant I remembered all late nights, the skived off term papers, and all the friends who I ignored in exchange for a little more time with Diablo 2. Then, just like during those allegedly friendly dates with old flings, the initial euphoria wore off. Before long, all I could notice was the ways in which she had changed. So as much as I want her to be the same, Diablo 3 isn’t the girl I used to know.

NB: I don’t think Diablo is a girl. Feel free to change pronouns within the analogy to suit your gender / sexual orientation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m probably still going to have a relationship with Diablo 3. I just wonder how much I’m going to be comparing her to more popular and not quite as smart cousin, World of Warcraft.

NB: I don’t think World of Warcraft is stupid per se, simply that it is less smart than Diablo 2.

Graphics

Diablo 3 is a very pretty game. Even on my mid-range system I could max out textures and shadows without any noticeable lag. I’m hesitant to carp on the odd graphical hiccup and frame rate drop as this was a stress test weekend. This next bit may go without saying, but do make sure your video card drivers are up to date. Mine were only two months old, yet they produced some serious ugliness in the animations.

Characters

Part of the “fun” of this weekend was not being able to log into Blizzard’s Diablo servers. As such, I only managed one complete play through. During that time I was a Demon Hunter named Phnogbar. Once I unlocked the rapid fire skill and paired that with an uncommon frost buffed cross bow, I felt like a god damn terminator. Nothing stood in my way. Yet, I didn’t particularly love the fact that the Demon Hunter seemed limited to ranged weapons. I was hoping for a bit of one-handed cross bow and knife action. Perhaps it will be unlocked in the main game.

Also, and I know this is a complaint late to the internet, how craptastic is it that there’s a Barbarian class but no Paladin? I liked being the Paladin.

Audio

Sound, music, and voice acting are essential parts in building not only the Diablo mythos, but also an overall game play atmosphere. Like any good Diablo player, I started my beta playthrough at 11pm, finishing sometime before 4am. During that time I sat in near darkness and ran the sound through my Sanheiser headphones. Between audio logs that build the game’s lore, and the squishy sound of worms exploding out of a bloated demon’s chest, the game’s sound quality is almost perfect.

Gameplay

This is where the nostalgia starts wearing a bit thin. Perhaps my gamer skills have developed a bit since I last courted Diablo 2, but the beta makes the game seem very easy. How easy? I only died once during my run through the campaign, and that was because I was mucking about in the inventory. I know, I can play the game on harder difficulties upon each subsequent run through, but the baseline game feels easier.

Even the interface feels safer. Rather having to switch between a variety of skills hot keyed from 1 to 9, Diablo now limits players to right and left mouse click for primary and secondary attack (Think Skyrim here) and four character defined skills on keys 1 to 4. Again, these are decisions that seem to make the game easier (or in the common parlance, more accessible). Call me a sadist if you will, but frantic skill switching and looming player death are what made Diablo 2 an edge-of-the-seat affair.

As was the case in World of Warcraft the equipment vendors generally cease to be useful after the game’s first half hour. The notable exception is that the blacksmith can now make uber equipment at the cost of loot found within the game. So when my Demon Hunter found a (useless) epic sword of epicness, I could break it down into elemental parts whereby the smithie would make things suitable to my character. So that’s something I’m looking forward to playing with in the release build.

As well, the follower system seems improved from Diablo 2. Though the beta only offers a templar (aka PALADIN) companion, his brawling skills perfectly complement my ranged attacks.

Finally combat effects (knockback, elemental damage, environment destruction) are much improved from Diablo 2. Seriously, I shouldn’t enjoy dropping a chandelier on a bunch of goons as much as I do.

Skill Trees / Leveling Up

I won’t lie, I don’t like what Blizzard is doing with this.

First, Diablo 3 manages stat bonuses upon leveling without any input from the player. Next, the once complex and layered skill trees from Diablo 2, a feature that allowed a player to customize their character class even further, have been streamlined into a series of level unlocks. To anybody who has ever played World of Warcraft, the system will be instantly familiar. Once again, this is an attempt on the part of Blizzard to make Diablo a more “accessible” game. But in making the tile more “accessible” they’ve made it more linear, and more importantly, taken away the capacity for a player to make mistakes.

Protip: Mistakes are essential parts of learning. Take away the ability to learn, and something, anything, becomes stagnant. Stagnant RPG’s that flirt with MMO status don’t make money.

Granted most RPGers worth their salt would never pour strength points into a wizard. Nor would they burden a barbarian with an excess of intelligence. But most RPGs trust players with the capacity to make that decision on their own. Diablo 3’s decision to do it for me evokes thoughts of a gaming nanny state, or Mass Effect 2. Take your pick.

Overall Impression

Diablo 2 was my obsession. She was the girl who I brought home to meet my parents, and my parents did not approve. Naturally, that made me want her even more. After spending a few hours with Diablo 3, she seems to have the makings of a very good mistress. She’s pretty, she’s fun, but I don’t see how she will intrude into my daily life. And if she can’t distract me from my work or make me sacrifice sleep for her attention, I doubt Diablo 3 will be able to enthrall me as did her predecessors.